Turkey and the Issue of Syrian Kurds: Possible Consequences of a
After the Syrian army withdrew its forces from a number of important cities in the Kurdish region of the country along the common border with Turkey, armed Kurdish groups affiliated to Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) occupied those cities and hoisted PKK flags on the rooftop of state-run buildings.
The development has severely angered Turkish officials who have been engaged for long decades in a bloody war with PKK in the Kurdish region of their own country. It is not clear whether the Syrian army has left Kurdish cities under pressure from the opposition or the withdrawal is the result of a more calculated plan. The Turkish government, however, believes that the Syrian government has left this part of the country quite intentionally and on purpose in order to let the PKK take charge of the Syrian cities in the Kurdish region. In this way, Damascus will be able to create a situation in the Syrian Kurdistan similar to what had already happened to the Iraqi Kurdistan, and provide PKK with a safe haven against Turkey.
Whatever the reality, there is no doubt that the situation cannot be reversed to what it was before; at least, it will not take place in a simple way without a lot of bloodletting. Turkey is now in really dire straits. If Turkey’s support for the enemies of the Syrian President Bashar Assad leads to a situation in Syria’s Kurdistan similar to what is currently going on in the Iraqi Kurdistan, Ankara will be the final loser of that situation. This possibility is now more powerful than any time before because Syria is following a policy which it cannot win. The main risk is that Turkish leaders may resort to military power in order to change the new equations which are taking shape in the region and enter the Syrian Kurdish region under the pretext of what is currently happening in that region. Of course, such a measure will be neither simple, nor possible without coordination with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the United States. However, Turkey is currently having enough motive and pretext to invade parts of the Syrian soil in order to rebalance the Syrian political equation in its own favor.
The problem is that such a measure by Ankara can turn the ongoing war in Syria, which is currently limited to an apparently small-scale conflict between the Syrian army and the armed opposition, into a full-blown regional war. In that case, the ongoing conflict in Syria, which is in fact a proxy war in which certain countries are settling scores with one another, will turn into a destructive regional war which may spill over into other regional countries as well. The possible outlook of this war should logically seem grave enough to convince the leaders of the Islamist Justice and Development Party to think twice about the consequences of such overt military intervention in Syria. They should especially take into account Russia’s opposition to military intervention in Syria. Russia has a military base in Tartus and its opposition has practically made any form of military meddling impossible in Syria. The opposition of China and Russia to US plans in the United Nations has also barred the United States from obtaining an authorization for military intervention in Syria. This is why the West’ policy for toppling Bashar Assad’s government has opted for a long and destructive civil war. This is a war of attrition which is marked with destruction of all infrastructures in Syria and vengeful massacres characterized by large-scale violation of human rights without either of two involved parties assuming responsibility for what is happening on the ground.
This kind of war is not just dangerous for Syria, but Turkey as well may find itself faced with unforeseen risks and hazards. The Syrian army as well as its centralized power structure is still determined and powerful enough to continue the war despite heavy blows dealt to it and in the face of dissent and separation of various officials which has extended high enough to include the former prime minister, Riad Hijab. The former prime minister recently fled to Jordan. Although the Syrian opposition and their foreign supporters believe that the Syrian government’s determination will waiver in the long term, the main risk which may be posed to Syria if the current situation goes on is practical disintegration of the country along ethnic and sectarian fault lines. Perhaps the day would come when Bashar Assad’s government and his supporters in the army as well as other sections of the military and security forces would fail to withstand extensive onslaught against them from inside the country and would then have to retreat. However, even in that case, the retreat will not be complete as they are sure to be able to retain their control over certain parts of the country which will be centered on the old city of Latakia, which is traditional base of the Alawites. They will then leave the rest of the country to the opposition. As a result, Syria may easily fall apart along ethnic and religious lines at the end of a destructive sectarian war. What is currently going on in the Kurdish part of Syria can be repeated in other parts of the country as well. In that case, Turkey and Iraq are two immediate neighbors of Syria and the aforesaid ethnic and religious crisis in Syria may easily find its way onto those countries. A minor version of that crisis has already occurred after the domination of PKK forces over Kurdish region of Syria. This crisis involves the Iraqi Kurdistan region and the central government in Baghdad. Maintaining the current border between Iraq and Syria is the focal point of the crisis and if a sensible solution is not found, it may evolve into a crisis of secession. This is only a small side effect of the spillover of the Syrian crisis into neighboring countries. A bigger and most important crisis will be facing Turkey.
In reality, Turkey is currently facing a tough test. Regardless of the way that power will finally turn in Syria, Turkey will have to grapple with the issue of Kurds and will not be able to easily get rid of it. If, for any reason, Syria fails to maintain its national unity and territorial integrity at the end of a foreign-imposed civil war, it will bring the same situation to other regional countries. Regardless of whether that situation would be the result of a premeditated plan or an inevitable outcome of the ongoing developments in Syria, its consequences for Turkey and other counties which are playing a part in the Syrian crisis or want to play a part, one way or another, would be the same.
At any rate, the possibility should be taken into account that developments in Syria may not proceed as Turkey expects. Repetition of strategic mistakes by such centralized systems of government as Syria is not unexpected. However, repetition of strategic mistakes by governments which claim to be relying on parliamentary democracy and people’s votes, such as the Turkey’s Justice and Development Party government, is really unexpected and will be probably followed by very important domestic and regional consequences. Turkey’s engagement in the Syrian civil war will cause that war to evolve into regional dimensions. This will be the greatest imaginable risk for security in the entire region and even the world which can easily crush the fragile balance of power in the Middle East.
*Expert on Pakistan and Afghanistan Issues